Cathedral Wash Trailhead

Blog National Parks

Cathedral Wash Trail is a 3.3 mile moderately trafficked out and back trail located near Marble Canyon, Arizona that features a river and is rated as difficult. The trail offers a number of activity options and is accessible year-round.

This is not a difficult hike. However, if you’re unaccustomed to hiking in a slot canyon the few small down climbs can feel extreme. In reality, though, they are short, simple and quite manageable and most people will make it just fine.

The down climbs encountered in this hike are all only a few feet tall so if you cannot manage them alone, you should be able to with assistance from hiking partners. What challenges people is that often there is more than one way to navigate a down climb rather than just one clear spot. This means at times it’s necessary to backtrack in search of a spot that is most comfortable for you to down climb. We seen mentioned by other hikers that cairns mark the easiest path down; however, because this drainage periodically experiences flash floods cairns are not always present. Regardless, it will not be too difficult for most people to find a way down.

The first significant down climb in the canyon is reached when you encounter a 30 foot drop off. At this spot many people have trouble determining where to go but on your right hand if facing down canyon there is a short, easy down climb of about 5 feet to a wide ledge. It may look scary to some but as you make your way down you’ll realize immediately that it is very secure. From here go right and walk on the ledge under an overhang (some may have to hunch over) for about 30 feet to where the ledge gets wider and starts stepping down, in short drops, towards the canyon floor. From here it is easy to pick a path down to the canyon floor.

After this obstacle there are a few more short down climbs but none will be more challenging than the first down climb. Return the way you came. Most will find that up climbing is much easier than down climbing.

At least that all I have read about this particular hiking. The temperature forecasted for todays hike was about 114F in some places. 

Our view for breakfast

Saydie and I got up and went downstairs for our complimentary breakfast. We elected to eat outside. This was our view, in the distance you can see Vermilion Cliffs, below that is the Colorado River and Marble Canyon. Closer in you have Horseshoe Bend off to the left of town, to the right out of frame would be Glen Canyon Dam.

After breakfast Saydie and I collected our day packs each with 3 liters of water for the hike. And we headed off. To get to Cathedral Wash Trailhead. From Page, AZ: Go south on highway 89 to Bitter Springs in about 25 miles. Turn north here onto 89A, and follow it 14.3 miles to just after crossing Marble Canyon and the Colorado River. Turn right on the signed Glen Canyon Recreation Area / Lee’s Ferry road. Follow it 1.3 miles to the signed Cathedral Wash pullout on the left side of the road. This is the trailhead.

But before we made it to our hiking start off point. I elected to stop at a lay by a and break out the drone.


After the drone flight we headed off to Cathedral Wash Trailhead. The rest of the photos are from the hike.

Saydie and I about to set off on our hike.
Saydie showing her old man up with some mad hiking skills.

There had apparently been some flash flooding in the days prior, cause right off the bat we come to this point, and sure enough there is this knee high muddy mess, how do we know it was knee high?

Thats how!
Cathedral Wash Trail
Cathedral Wash Trail
Cathedral Wash Trail
Cathedral Wash Trail
Cathedral Wash Trail
Cathedral Wash Trail
Cathedral Wash Trail
Cathedral Wash Trail


Now something interesting occurred near the end of the trail. Saydie and I came to this particular spot just before you exit the slot canyon and it begins to open up some before reaching the Colorado River (5 mins hike).

I suffer from lower back issues, since a 2015 automobile accident I have dealt with 3 slipped discs, that tend to flair up routinely. I started to feel a little awkward and figured I just needed to pull up and take a quick break, hydrate and everything would be good. The sun was to our right so pretty much blocked by a canyon wall to the right, but was beating down on anything to the opposite canyon wall.

I sat down, and about 3 mins in my lower back suddenly and painfully spasm’d and it hurt something fierce. All I could do was find a spot in the shade and try to find a position that was comfortable hoping it would pass.

My view as my back was in a full spasm.

I found a spot that was clear and by clear I mean free of any snakes 😀 , I decided to send Saydie down the rest of the to determine how far I was from the Colorado River, thinking that the spasm was a heat related issue. I figured the extremely cool Colorado River would help. 

I routinely hike with a Lifestraw water bottle, so I sent that down with Saydie, so she could fill it in the Colorado. Where we would come out, there is a small rapid there so I figured the water would be cleanest, and the lifestraw bottle would do the rest.

The water she brought back definitely was cold, and seemed to help, and allowed me to make the remaining 5 min hike.

Colorado River, end of the Cathedral Wash Trail
Colorado River, end of the Cathedral Wash Trail
Colorado River, end of the Cathedral Wash Trail
Rafters coming down Colorado River

We made it, I immediately dropped all my gear and immediately hit the water, I found a rock near the rapid and simply sat down for the next 40 mins and let the water drop my body temperature.

I am an ex-Navy medic and while Saydie enjoyed herself in the river, I started to evaluate my situation. I could simply tell my body was not recovering fast enough. I could feel my toes, and feet cramping and spasming. As I continued to assess my physical well-being, I started to take stock of the situation.

How was I going to climb backup this slot canyon with my back spasming? Where we were at by the river I had a cell signal; I couldn’t say the same up the slot canyon where I had taken the brief break. When I took the photo above it was 12:29 p.m.

I elected to continue to cool down, I have plenty of water and the spasm’s were coming in waves. I figured I had enough water, and I had survival gear for 2 days for Saydie and I, if needed. But as we continued to hang-out by the river I simply couldn’t get comfortable, the spasms weren’t stopping they were actually getting worse.

This is when you start fighting pride. 

As I continued to assess my back issue, the symptoms weren’t adding up, why was I not recovering, I had water, my body was cool. Then it dawned on me.

Salt! I was low on sodium and I didn’t have any salt tablets. Doh!

Low salt levels are one cause of muscle cramps. “Salt” generally refers to sodium, which is an essential electrolyte. During exercise sodium is lost in sweat and blood sodium levels drop. When this happens, the body regulates sodium levels and a cascade of hormonal changes occurs to bring sodium back up. In persons who are heavy or salty sweaters, the body may not be able to keep up with the amount of sodium being lost in sweat and sodium levels can drop dangerously low, called hyponatremia. Before sodium levels drop into ranges that can be called hyponatremia, muscle cramps and twitches may occur. 

Sodium, along with other electrolytes, controls muscle contractions by triggering nerve impulses. When sodium levels drop, the nerve signals go haywire and a cramp is triggered.

That’s the theory at least. And based on my assessment, I was going to get worse not better.

So once that set in, my focus became its not just me, I have to get Saydie out of this canyon also. And this is where I start to battle pride.

As I reached for my cell phone and called 911, the phone rings and I am connected with the 911 dispatch in Page, Arizona. I identify myself, my location and my situation. They then transfer me to the Park Rangers. 

The National Park Service rangers, are top notch. Having worked myself for the Department of Interior with the U.S. Geological Survey, I knew they had the resources to get to me, and of course Saydie.

I explained my situation, and my concerns and that I felt that it wasn’t safe for me to try to climb back out the canyon and that I was in need of their assistance.

We did a quick over the phone review of my symptoms and the park ranger agreed that the issue was that I was low on sodium, but the next issue what means where they going to affect getting me help. The best options where helicopter or by boat, the rangers need to see what resources were where. So we disconnected and about 5 mins later they called back and said they were going to drop one of their ribs in at Lees Ferry and come rescue me via water craft on the river since they could spot me there.

40 mins later, the National Park Services rangers rounded the bend and tied up their water craft just up from the rapids I was at. One of the rangers then quickly blazed a trail to me, and had us follow him back to the rib.

Once on the boat, they did a quick check on me, and then explained they were concerned about my back, and wanted to warn me that we would be heading up stream and up 2 different sets of rapids and that the ride might be uncomfortable.

At that point I didn’t really care.

So off we went, Saydie and I are now on a water craft headed up the Colorado River to Lees Ferry.

The two sets of rapids weren’t too bad, and we got to Lees Ferry without incident, other than observing a drunk Navajo Indian completely passed out along the banks of the river to which after the Rangers got me back to my car were going to have to go back and check on the drunk Indian.

We made a quick stop at the ranger station to get gatoraid and then they drove Saydie and I back to our car. 

During the ride, I almost puked. I was a little motion sick. But I make it back to the car without decorating the front seat of the Park Rangers vehicle. And Saydie drove us back to Page, Arizona to our hotel.

Lets just say, that the rest of my night was painful as I was rocked with muscle cramps and spasms for at least six hours straight.

By morning they had passed, but the damage to my muscles had been done and I could barely move.

So….Rest Day.



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